There have been cattle in the Camargue since the remotest antiquity. Camargue bulls are small and black and have lyre-shaped horns. They are reared in semi-liberty in the wetlands of the delta. They are an integral part of Camargue folklore and festivities and their physical features and combativeness make them better for local ‘bullfights’ and games than for use as draught animals or for meat. They first enter the arena when they are 3 or 4 years old and can finish their careers when they are 15 or 16.
When the anoubles (one-year-old bulls) have been separated from the herd and driven at a gallop to the branding site, a gardian (a Camargue ‘cowboy’) applies his trident to the side of the bull to bring it to the ground, where it is held by guests. The mark of the ranch is applied to the left thigh with a branding iron and an escoussure (a recognition cut) is made to an ear. The escoussure makes it possible to find animals that have become mingled with another herd. It is the occasion for grand festivities in the fields of the ranch. This need to mark the cattle for recognition purposes is thought to have been at the origin of games with bulls.
Bullfight with trophies
This is the course camarguaise, known as course à la cocarde and also course libre, a taurine game that appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. Recognised as a sport by the Ministry of Sport, the course à la cocarde is a game in which the animal is not killed and is not badly treated. In the arena, the raseteurs (Camargue bullfighters—dressed in white) must try to remove three trophies attached to the bull: a rosette (cocarde) tied between the horns, pompoms at the base of the latter and a string wound around the horns. Camargue bulls are extremely lively and can surprise the best raseteurs. The highest competitive level in Camargue bullfighting is Le Trophée des As (The Champions Trophy).
The word abrivado is comes from abriva—meaning accelerate, throw or go fast. It was initially applied to the arrival of the bulls at the arena after leaving their pasture. They are now transported in open cattle trucks. The bulls are released at the end of the main street in a village, surrounded by gardians on horseback. The young people in the village try to divert the bulls and make them escape, giving the gardians an opportunity to show their riding skills.
The name comes from the Provençal word bandi meaning to free or release. This is the opposite of an abrivado and consists of taking the bulls to the pasture at the end of the afternoon, after the bullfight. The bulls may be escorted one by one by the gardians—this is the most reliable way of taking them back to the ranch. Today, the bulls are released and run from one end of the street to the other and then are taken to the pasture in a cattle truck. The bulls that run in the streets are not those used for the courses camarguaises.
From the Spanish word encerrar meaning enclose. This is a game with bulls (or young cows) whose horns are protected by metal balls or leather padding. They are released into a barricaded area of streets in a town or village. Horsemen are not involved: villagers on foot excite the bulls and escape them by jumping on to straw bales or behind the barriers. An encierro is generally organised in the afternoon or evening during village festivities or on a Sunday in the winter.
The Camargue Cross
The painter and sculptor Paul Herman designed the Camargue cross in 1924 at the request of the Marquis de Baroncelli. It shows a symbolic association between gardians and fishermen, the two components of the ‘people’ of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The cross stands on an anchor and has tridents, expressing the common faith of the two professional spheres, with charity represented by the central heart and hope corresponding to the tridents at the three extremities of the cross.
These are joyous festive moments—popular events that happen in the streets of the village. They start in the morning with an abrivado. The bulls are enclosed between gardians on horseback and the young people of the village try to make the bulls escape. The bandido is run in the same way at the end of the afternoon. Some villages organise encierros, with bulls released in the barricaded streets. Young people from the village jump into this improvised arena for wild pursuits with the animals.
For more information, see the website of the Fédération Française de la Course Camargaise www.ffcc.info (calendars of events, etc.).